Lord Loomba: The UK should apologise for Amritsar
On the centenary of the Amritsar Massacre, Lord Loomba calls on the Prime Minister to apologise to India for the atrocity – and finally heal an old wound in British-Indian relations
In February I led a debate in the House of Lords asking the Government what plans it has to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the ‘Massacre in Amritsar’.
In the debate, I described poignantly how I have visited the Jallianwala (place) Bagh (park) in Amritsar, many times, and seen for myself the bullet holes in the walls and the well from which over 100 bodies were extracted. What is particularly heartbreaking about the place is that around the park, many stories are written on placards and stones, and it is impossible to come away from it without tears rolling down your face. It is a shocking event to recall, even after 100 years.
Amritsar was a prominent city in the undivided India under the Colonial Raj and the park was a public place of quiet solitude and reflection. On 13th April 1919, it was being used for one of the many peaceful events that take place there. Sadly, what happened on that tragic day is a universally acknowledged act of sheer wanton, heinous barbarism.
However, at the time of writing this article, the Government has yet to give a full and proper apology for the acts of one man: Colonel Reginald Dyer. One man who managed – in the short time it took for around 50 soldiers to fire all their ammunition – to change the course of history as he destroyed the innocent lives before him. Estimates of the numbers killed and injured vary, but it is thought that at least a thousand people – including women, children and the old – were left to die alone, in agony, as the people were afraid to go to nearby hospitals due to the martial law in place at the time.
Other speakers in the debate, who represented all political parties, were also supportive of an apology, including Lord Alton of Liverpool who said: “The response was wholly disproportionate and excessive”, and that, “although the House of Commons excoriated Dyer by denouncing his actions as an act of ‘brutality’ that had ‘stunned this entire nation’,” the House of Lords “offered Dyer accolades”. “Perhaps today,” he said, “we can atone and help to heal that shocking moment of our history.” Another speaker, Lord Bilimoria, describing his mother’s words that it was “nothing short of murder”, said “the worst thing is that Dyer never showed any remorse or regret”.
Winston Churchill – speaking in the Commons the following year – described it as “an episode which appears to me to be without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire. It is an event of an entirely different order from any of those tragical occurrences which take place when troops are brought into collision with the civil population. It is an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation”.
We have set up the Jallianwala Bagh Centenary Commemoration Committee (JBCCC), comprising Balbir Singh Kakar (chair), Lord and Lady Desai, Virendra Sharma, Ambassador Navtej Sarna and me. Dr Rajinder Singh Chadha, Manjit Singh GK, Padma Shri Vikramjit Singh Sahney and Surinder Singh Manak are the patrons.
JBCCC will be organising exhibitions in London, Birmingham and Manchester, which will look at the day of massacre as well as the events before and after. I will be hosting a commemorative dinner at the House of Lords on 13th April – 100 years after the massacre.
Lord Desai and I have written to the Prime Minister requesting an apology. Both Her Majesty the Queen and the then prime minister, David Cameron, have visited the Jallianwala Bagh, paid their respects to the martyred people and showed regret at the atrocity. The mood in India is one of atonement for past mistakes and the British Government needs to understand this, apologise to the Indian people, and give closure to this very sad and unfortunate episode.
Lord Loomba is a Crossbench peer